Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Proper benefit-cost analysis when taking death penalty positions

In a sensational “Shawshank Redemption”-style prison break, a pair of cunning convicted murderers used power tools and tunnels to escape an upstate maximum-security penitentiary near the Canadian border.
A massive manhunt was underway Saturday after killers Richard Matt, 48, and David Sweat, 34, were discovered missing from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, about 25 miles from Canada, officials said.
The inmates made their extraordinary dash to freedom after faking out guards with makeshift dummies made out of hooded sweatshirts to appear as if they were still sleeping inside their cells. And once officials discovered they were gone, they found a note from convicts telling them to "Have a nice day!"

When people argue about whether society should have a death penalty, sometimes the argument is strictly based on moral arguments.  But when it is not, sometimes the costs of the death penalty are brought up, and usually by those opposed to the death penalty as the costs of imposing the death penalty are high.

I don't buy into this argument against the death penalty, however, as the reason it is high is precisely because death penalty opponents use (and abuse?) the legal process to drag out appeals for decades. Regardless, some will use this argument to say that life-in-prison sentences should be used instead of going for the death penalty.

However, one thing that is rarely considered in these arguments is that when someone isn't executed, there is a non-trivial chance they'll murder again.  This can happen within the prison or, like the story above, when prisoners escape.

A true benefit cost analysis should factor in that "life in prison" for a convict really means "will probably spend life in prison".

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